Google's long-term future is of interest to investors again
Investors often grow uneasy when companies invite them to consider the long term. Anything beyond the next three or four quarters can quickly stray into the speculative. In the tech industry, where large companies often need to plan and invest in projects that may not reach market for years, the tension between long-term strategies and short-term profits can often make for an uncomfortable tug-of-war.
Some big tech companies have started winning the good faith of investors when it comes to supporting their long-term plans. There's Amazon, which has seen its stock rise despite razor thin profits or even occasional losses because of its steady track record of investing successfully in strong revenue growth. And now Google seems to be drawing support on Wall Street for its future plans.
Google announced its first quarter earnings this afternoon. The company's revenue of $11 billion in the quarter was in line with analyst estimates of $11.1 billion. And its earnings of $11.58 a share exceeded forecasts of $10.65 a share. There were few surprises in the report: The core ad business is healthy as paid clicks rose 20 percent from the year-ago quarter while cost per click fell 4 percent. The stock was up 1.5 percent in afterhours trading on the numbers.
Like Amazon, Google is showing it can dedicate talent and capital onto unproven projects without interfering too much with its current financial performance. During the conference call to discuss earnings, many of the questions turned to products and features that are generating little if any money so far.
A transcript of the call shows that Google Glass, the wearable computers that Google is rolling out slowly, was referenced 12 times, usually at the prompting of an analyst question. Larry Page mused about the future of Glass, how in addition to core functions such as taking photos and videos, making calls and getting directions developers will build new apps to add new features. “Some day we’ll all be amazed that computing involved fishing around in pockets and purses,” he said.
For all the gee-whiz aspect of the discussion, the subtext was this: At the end of the day, Google Glass is just another piece of digital real estate for Google to sell ads – the key difference is that the ads will be placed about an inch from the consumer's eye. Ubiquitous computing, for Google, translates into ubiquitous ads. And Google is positioning itself to be the biggest seller of online ads not just this year, but for years to come.
That has been Google's pattern all along: Build a better search engine, sell ads on it. Organize the world's information, and sell ads alongside it. Don't do evil, but do sell ads. As Page said on the call, Gmail was released when Google was a search company. He might have added that YouTube was bought when it was a search company too. Now Google is a leader in online apps and Web video – both popular services where its ads can be found.
The focus on Google's longer-term future is significant considering that only a couple of years ago, many investors were concerned about how its search-dependent business model would thrive amid the rise of Facebook. The answer, for now, is that revenue is growing by 23 percent a year and profit is growing by 16 percent.
Under Page, rather than being sidelined, Google has become a more central force in the development of the web. This is especially true in mobile, where Facebook has struggled but Google has leveraged its Android platform into ad-serving apps like Maps and Google Now.
And so many of today's questions from analysts were directed to other areas of future growth. Scott Devitt of Morgan Stanley asked Nikesh Arora, Google's chief business officer, about the possibility of online advertising becoming more than half of total advertising in the next five years. Arora said that TV's migration to IP would allow for a personalized ads on displays that Google is already positioned to offer.
Other analysts asked about Google Fiber, launched in Kansas City and expanding to Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah. Both Page and CFO Patrick Pichette answered that it's “early days,” although Pichette later mentioned that Fiber “is not only about the future but it’s really a lot about today” before taking a dig at current ISPs that require several seconds to load a YouTube video.
The risk in focusing too much on the financial prospects of a company more than a year or so into the future is that there are just too many unforeseen events – economic slowdowns, competing products by rivals and the question of how consumers are going to take to untested products. Glass could be the next big thing, or it could become an early footnote in the history of wearable computers.
Google has done a consistently good job of moving into new areas and finding ways to sell ads on them. It has its share of failures as well. But in contrast to a couple of years ago, investors seem to be interested in hearing about Google's future with a sense of anticipation, rather than concern.